Each Friday in Not Fit for Dinner, C. Ryan Knight explores political issues and the preconceptions guiding our understanding of and responses to them.
Fire-tongued Congressman Allen West has set headlines ablaze once again when he disparaged President Barack Obama at a campaign event earlier this month: “He does not want you to have the self-esteem of getting up and earning and having that title of American. He’d rather you be his slave.” His other recent attention-grabbing comments include telling major Democratic leaders to “get the hell out” of America in January (to much applause), as well as speculating in April that around 80 members of the Democratic Party were “card-carrying Marxist socialists.”
Opinion writer Dan Turner of the Los Angeles Times reported on CNN host Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, in which Blitzer pressed Priebus to explain West’s likening of Obama to a slave-owner. Priebus’ defense of West essentially amounted to a defense of free speech, describing the controversy over the word “slave” as “semantics,” and insisting the real issue is how well (or poorly) Obama has taken action to keep alive “the idea of America.” Unconvinced by Priebus’ claim that West is a “rising star” (and presumably a good star), Turner described West as “the GOP’s reigning clown prince of umbrage-generating outrageousness.”
West appeared on FOX News with host Mike Huckabee and discussed this recent controversy, specifically Turner and Blitzer’s criticism. On the air, West clarified that economic dependency is “a different form of slavery” that is “not physical.” He should have made this qualification in at the campaign event where he first sparked controversy, but at least he made this important concession.
With this controversy in mind, I want to point out the importance of carefully using the term slavery. If done in an appropriate way, the term can be used effectively and powerfully. In the New Testament, Paul speaks of choosing to be either slaves to sin or slaves to obedience and righteousness (Romans 6.15-19). Here Paul uses the notion of slavery fairly, for people are indeed “bound” to their faith and to their folly.
But we have to question if it is fair for West to accuse Obama of attempting to enslave America, be it physical or non-physical. Did Obama not take an oath when he was inaugurated to protect America, its citizens, and its Constitution? It is unfit for a politician to accuse another politician—the President, no less—of enslaving Americans without providing immediate, extensive evidence for such an accusation.
It also strikes me as very poor form for one African-American (West) to accuse another (Obama) of wishing to be a slave-master. Perhaps we can excuse West’s comment as simply ideological. There is, however, no legitimate excuse I can think of that justifies connecting an African-American president to generations of predominantly white slave-owners who made their living (and many their fortune) from the work of their slaves. This association is profoundly offensive and degrading.
I understand West’s controversial remark about slavery is part of his general strategy of uniting conservatives through evoking totalitarianism (in rhetoric, this is known as the appeal to fear). Using powerful metaphors like slavery can be useful and effective in certain contexts. But as seen with West’s faux pas, metaphors can also get away from us, and the results can easily become injurious and offensive—not to mention damaging to the character of the speaker who misused the metaphor.